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May 22, 2006

BabyFirstTV: Uh-Oh, I'm Being Swayed

babyfirst_tv_content.jpgLook, I can't pretend I'm automatically and irrevocably opposed to babies watching television. I mean, the kid watched her first movie from my lap when she was not even 4 weeks old. [Granted, it was John Cassavetes' Shadows, and she only saw blurry, intermittent interludes of black & white motion, but still, I felt it was appropriate (enough) at the time.]

And so while I sounded all sarcastic and sanctimonious about Baby First TV's new subscription channel for infants last week, after reading David Itzkoff's remarkably perceptive review of the channel's actual programming, I have to say, I'm ready to not hate it.

There are unscripted scenes of animals walking around. Gently shifting rainbow color fields and extremely slowly drawn sand pictures. Basic shape, color, and matching activities. And short, simple stories about unlicensed [so far], seemingly agenda-free characters. Just about the only actual complaint he makes about BFTV is their lack of narrative organization:

Where BabyFirstTV will likely suffer most is in the minds of older viewers who cannot help but compare it to their own halcyon memories of "Sesame Street." BabyFirstTV may not yet have its own set of recognizable icons for children to latch on to, but the more obvious deficiency is its lack of pacing: there are no apparent thematic threads that tie its segments together no obvious reasons why a video short about fingers and thumbs should be followed by a cartoon about what sound a duck makes, followed by another cartoon about what scientists do. Without a clearly defined beginning, middle and end to its programming blocks, there is no compelling need to turn on BabyFirstTV at any particular time of day, but more tellingly, there is no obvious indication other than the alarm bells on an adult's internal clock that it is time to turn it off.
Last things first: the apparent potential for parents to park their kid and forget about it is there, and it's a real concern. Fine. But BFTV's weakness--the lack of a "compelling need to turn on BabyFirstTV at any particular time of the day"--may actually be the channel's biggest selling point. And the "Sesame Street" reference is very revealing on that score.

Think about it: with all it's morning ritual, its opening credits and songs, its "brought to you by the letter 'N'" faux sponsorships, and its episodic narrative, "Sesame Street" is a television show. It's a show that's good for you, but it's still a show. And as a result, the great, overarching lesson The Street taught us was how to watch a television show. BabyFirstTV's programming, on the other hand, is scheduled around a baby's day--and to suit a decisionmaker/parent's need at any given stage of that day. It's active and engaging in the daytime, and soothing and hypnotic at night. And that's about it. Because really, what more storyline does a baby's life have at nine months anyway, right?

To be honest about it, the kid's always had an on-demand TV channel, the only difference is I've been programming it myself online: Nat Geo's watering hole cam, videos of cows from some organic dairy, flickr slideshows, flickr-based music videos and bouncy ball commercials, and now bitesize Sesame Street and Wiggles clips right when we need them. BabyFirstTV's biggest competition may not be "Sesame Beginnings," but YouTube.

BabyFirst: Television Steps Perilously Close to the Womb [nyt]
Previously: From The Makers of Free Willy: Pay-TV For Babies

posted May 22, 2006 10:57 PM | add to del.icio.us | digg this


We will use YouTube as an on-demand video source as well. The only thing I don't like, and I am going to sound like the person I said I'd never sound like, is that you can search for something like 'kermit' and have to wade through many non-kermit videos, some of questionable character, while your child goes, "That one!".

Fortunately, she's not perceptive enough to pick up on the questionable ones. Now I will wade through on "off hours" and build a favorites list to play for her.

posted by: Kaz at May 23, 2006 8:20 AM


please tell me where to find video of organic cows online- that sounds like some quality programming!

i am very anti-tv myself. grew up with one in every room. now don't have any in the whole house. my life is better b/c of it. but- i see its merit with little ones

[Straus Family Creamery. They have a half dozen or so little promo movies about their process. They're slightly Mr Rogers-y. -ed.]

posted by: jess at May 24, 2006 12:42 AM

This is a tough one. I'm a stay-at-home dad who has the joyous burden of keeping my ten-month-old son entertained from about 7 in the morning until mom arrives home from work around 5. I'm sympathetic to those moms and pops who are looking for something to appease a baby during the unavoidable daily tasks - from fixing bottles to using the bathroom. However, the research on infant television viewing is pretty disturbing, even if it isn't conclusive. Television viewing by infants (0-35 months) has been linked to long-term overconsumption of television (PEDIATRICS Vol. 109 No. 4 April 2002, pp. 634-642), decreased attention span (PEDIATRICS Vol. 113 No. 4 April 2004, pp. 708-713), and even impaired neural development (Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.
ARTICLE REPRINT Ģ From the May 1998 AAP News). Consider this from Dr. Healy:
"With new shows targeted to children as young as 1 year, parents are asking more questions about how television might be influencing their children. Pediatricians can help young families make wise decisions about family media consumption.
Neuroscientists have shown that environmental experiences significantly shape the developing brain because of the plasticity of its neuronal
connectivity. Thus, repeated exposure to any stimulus in a child's environment may forcibly impact mental and emotional growth, either by
setting up particular circuitry ("habits of mind") or by depriving the brain of other experiences. While appropriate stimuli close interaction with loving caregivers; an enriched, interactive, human
language environment; engrossing hands-on play opportunities; and age-appropriate academic stimulation enhance the brain's development,
environments that encourage intellectual passivity and maladaptive behavior (e.g., impulsivity, violence), or deprive the brain of important chances to participate actively in social relationships, creative play, reflection and complex problem-solving may have deleterious and irrevocable consequences. In addition, trying to plunge youngsters into academic learning, when they should be personally investigating the three-dimensional world, risks bypassing important aspects of development."

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages television viewing by children under 2 years of age (PEDIATRICS Vol. 114 No. 5 November 2004, pp. 1235-1241 (doi:10.1542/peds.2003-1121-L)).

So, while I'm sympathetic to other primary caregivers who are occasionally overwhelmed by the demands of an infant, I'm pretty sure television isn't the answer. I've found that movement between crib, activity center, play mat, and the beloved Evenflo Jump & Go keeps Frankie more than occupied while I go about my unavoidable duties.

[good cites, thanks, David, but I think the "may" and equivocations of the above research findings are enough to induce a bit of guilt, but not to overcome the universality of TV, and the fact that most parents grew up watching it and think they turned out alright. -ed.]

posted by: David B at May 25, 2006 12:59 AM
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